Like Grapes of Wrath, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat offers a devastating look at social and economic breakdown, told not with rants or statistics, but through a riveting tale about good people in a bad situation. The characters in Sweat live in Reading, Pennsylvania, which 2010 U.S. Census data identified as the poorest city in America.
They are current, former and (they fully expect) future employees of a local factory, and they hang out together in a neighborhood bar, where most of the play takes place.
But Sweat begins in what looks like a dark prison, with a parole officer talking to a young sullen white man, Jason, whose face is covered with white supremacist tattoos. Then, separately, the parole officer talks to a young black man, Chris, also recently released from prison. It is 2008, Jason and Chris are connected in some way, and we are left with a question: What happened?
The scene shifts to the bar in 2000, and we see that Chris and a boyish, clean-faced Jason (with no tattoos) are fast friends, as are their mothers, Tracey and Cynthia. The question becomes: How did this change? It’s a crafty set-up, because the question doesn’t just pique our curiosity and create suspense; it’s the heart of the play thematically as well. As Jason puts it later, “How the f… did this happen?” How did this solid town – and by extension, a significant swath of the working population in America — implode? If, as Nottage has said in interviews, they were victims of the “de-industrial revolution,” Sweat isn’t as concerned with answering as in bringing us into the world of her credible, engaging characters, embodied by a terrific cast.
The play is the product of Nottage’s extensive field research (as was her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, and as was John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.) But it never feels like research.
Unlike the Joads, the group of people in Sweat are not all related by blood; they have formed a sort of family of friends, across divides of race and ethnicity. Cynthia, Tracey and a third woman, Jessie, are long-time workers at the Olstead’s factory, and friends for almost as long; they have created a tradition of celebrating their birthdays at the bar. Stan, the bartender, worked for 28 years at Olstead’s, until a workplace injury forced him out of his job. He knows and likes everybody, and the feeling is mutual.
There are hints of tension from the get-go. For one, Cynthia is estranged from her husband (and Chris’s father) Brucie; he is part of a long and fruitless union-organized fight against a different factory, and has turned to drugs for relief. And then everybody is treated amiably except the other employee of the bar, Oscar, who might as well be invisible. In a nice example of director Kate Whoriskey’s attention to telling details, while the others chat away and ignore him, Oscar silently crawls under the tables in order to scrape gum off the bottom.
But the strains between some of the characters are the exceptions; there is a feeling of general comity – until it is shattered when the company starts making clear its ominous plans for cost reductions.
What might have been under the surface all along, explodes into envy, resentment and prejudice, fanned by the plant’s divisive actions. Oscar, of Latino descent, shows Tracey a flyer from the company, written in Spanish, advertising job openings (at lower pay.)
“I’m not prejudice…I’m cool with everyone” Tracey says. “But, I mean… C’mon… you guys coming over here, you can get a job faster than…”
“I was born here,” Oscar interrupts.
“Still,” Tracey says, “you wasn’t born here, Berks” – the county where Reading is located.
“Yeah, I was.”
The exchange lands perfectly, thanks to the in-your-face performance by Broadway veteran Johanna Day (Proof, August: Osage County, You Can’t Take It With You) as Tracey, and the winning mix of diffidence and determination by Carlo Alban as Oscar.
Michelle Wilson is equally effective as Cynthia, who is given a suspiciously-timed promotion that makes her the enemy in the eyes of her friends, and tears her apart.
Will Pullen, who was frighteningly believable as the bully in Punk Rock, is spectacular once again as Jason, switching back and forth between the eager innocent of 2000 and the deflated loser of 2008.
Khris Davis, who made an impressive New York stage debut in an intense performance as the first black boxing champ in The Royale, here appropriately scales it back as Chris, a bright young man saving up money to go to college, trying to escape what everybody else accepts as predestined.
James Colby as Stan gives a performance that grows in power, and winds up central to Sweat’s ending. It’s an ending that may or may not stand as a metaphor for what’s happening in America, but is guaranteed to make you cry.
Sweat is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, in the East Village, New York, N.Y. 10003) through December 4, 2016.
Sweat . Written by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kate Whoriskey, featuring Carlo Albán (Oscar), James Colby (Stan), Khris Davis (Chris), Johanna Day (Tracey), John Earl Jelks (Brucie), Will Pullen (Jason), Miriam Shor (Jessie), Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), and Michelle Wilson (Cynthia).??Scenic Design John Lee Beatty?Costume Design Jennifer Moeller?Lighting Design Peter Kaczorowski?Original Music and Sound Design Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen?Projection Design Jeff Sugg. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.